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Mik Dietlin Column 10

Dietlin: On Fixing CFB Attendance Problems

The answer lies in better scheduling and molecular replicator technology

A completely filled-up Pac-12 stadium is an increasingly rare but beautiful sight. | Photo courtesy the LAFB Network

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By Mik Dietlin, SportsPac12

efore I begin, I'd like to update all of you about my recent efforts to practice social distancing. I've adopted an “unkempt” facial hair routine, allowing my hair and beard to grow how it must, without interference on my part. I've promised my wife to brush my teeth on a regular basis as before.

Some of you may argue that the best way I can practice social distancing is to continue writing these columns. I completely understand that sentiment and offer no argument against it. 

Attendance for Pac12 football games—or lack thereof—has always been a problem for me. 

I have to shove my disappointment aside at kickoff seeing the multitude of empty seats, struggling to pay attention to what's happening on the field. I shouldn't have to do that. Much of the juice fans should provide the home team is lost from the start. 

I can imagine a player storming from the tunnel full of energy, then looking around to see a three-quarter or half-filled stadium wondering, “Where the $%#& is everybody?” I can also imagine that same player's energy level whoosh from his body similar to mine when my cable TV image becomes pixelated beyond recognition.

Miami football's attendance bottomed-out in 2012. | Courtesy

In some way, players surely have to forget the crowd size and recoup their enthusiasm in order to perform at the level needed to win a game. What an advantage the Big Ten and the SEC has. Their players rush the field unconcerned with those trivialities. Pumped with vitality from an immense power generator, they're ready to go.

But miracles do happen in Pac-12 Land. After a commercial break, before the start of the second quarter, the broadcast team will usually recap what we've seen so far. It's always accompanied by  camera shots of the inside of the stadium. Like magic, fans appear to be airbrushed in, filling out those once empty seats. 

Late arrivals or not, airbrushed or not, they still aren't close to selling these buildings out.

This isn't an issue unique to the Pac-12. Attendance figures are down throughout college football. FBS attendance has lowered seven times the past eight seasons. There are many reasons given for this, as we'll see. 

I believe fans are weary of Power 5 teams pummeling FCS teams. I have no desire watching them do so on television. The games carry zilch national interest unless a once-in-a-generation upset occurs. That once-in-a-generation chance isn't nearly enticing enough to risk three hours of my life. 

I have to admit, though, the highlights of Appalachian State upsetting Michigan in 2007 were pretty comical.

The deciding play of the App St-Michigan game.

The greed of FCS school officials are the driving force behind these slaughters; aligned with conference administrators, they're responsible in part for the yearly shrinking fan turn-out. The conceit that FCS players are getting better by playing much stronger opponents they have no hope to compete against is a royal scam, meant to appease the David vs. Goliath fantasy inside all of us. 

But when these FCS teams are usually losing by 30-plus points, the fantasy morphs to a kind of collective blood-lust, a throwing of Christians into the lion's den, to continue hammering home ancient analogies. 

A few centuries ago you could escape being tortured to death by an animal (It wasn't only about lions), if you were Christian, by sacrificing to the Gods. In today's civilized society, your FCS kids still must be tortured, but their school gets a nice check of a few million dollars. 

Where was I? Oh... diminishing attendance figures. Many are visibly shaken lower attendance figures equate to lower interest.  

Everyone, that is, except the SEC, who's suffering only a minimal decline. If a worldwide nuclear holocaust were scheduled for a particular Wednesday during the fall, that football wacky conference would refuse to cancel those preceding Saturday's games. One last day of head-knocking amusement before oblivion.

Plenty of seats left for the UCLA-Oklahoma game in 2019. | Liz Ketcham/Daily Bruin

No conference has endured a more dramatic attendance drop in the past five years than the Pac-12. We all hear the same reasons the experts say as to why, usually centering around the weather. It's so pleasant on the West Coast everyone just wants to be outside doing stuff, anything but being crammed in a big yucky stadium. 

We are led to believe that people who've never surfed before suddenly have a hankering to buy a board and take on gnarly waves. Many Los Angelenos, constantly hearing you can swim in the ocean in the morning, go skiing in the mountains in the afternoon, and finish the day wine tasting in Santa Barbara County, have decided football just doesn't matter compared to that avalanche of pleasure. 

Yard work, virtually ignored for the entire year, has now become a priority during college football season. But as long as you're wearing your team jersey while mowing, you're still a rabid fan.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks it's something else. “I think phones, I think technology has been the decline in attendance, number one. I think, you know, watching young people today, live like this...” (lowers his head)  “Instead of like that...”(turns head upward). 

During a press conference last summer, Fitzy went on to recount an observation he made at a restaurant about two young couples more focused on their phones than each other. “I literally wanted to be like a dad and go like, 'give me your phone, talk to each other. I mean, this is pathetic.' So, it was really, really pathetic.” 

NW coach Pat Fitzgerald holds up a cell phone. | Courtesy Business Insider

What's really, really pathetic is blaming young people for any perceived failures in your profession. Are any of them blaming you for your failure after 14 years to elevate the Wildcats to an upper level Big Ten team?

Colleges across the country are well aware of the downward attendance trend, creatively implementing ways to enhance the game-day experience, from traffic updates during commutes to improved Wi-Fi usage inside the stadium. 

The Pac-12 has invented an historical analytics program designed to track and summarize fan behavior (sounds eerily like FBI technology). The conference hopes to customize the total game experience with the data, devising a personalized platform catering to the differences of individual stadiums and its fans.

It's a shame molecular replicator technology hasn't arrived, because then we could really create a true college football-fan experience worthy of our need for perpetual mental stimulation. 

Fans would deposit raw material into one of several machines throughout the stadium, then set the controls for the desired experience. Trillions and trillions of nanobots would converge on the raw material, taking apart and reassembling each molecule to form the specialized product providing each fan the ultimate in college football entertainment.

Replicator technology powers a Galaxy-class starship food machine. 

Despite the angst, I promise it's not time to panic, provided we all exercise a little care and attention.

A Gallup Poll taken after the 2018 season showed that 56 percent of U.S. adults said they were college football fans, more than professional baseball, hockey, basketball, and soccer. The 38 bowl games in 2018-19 averaged 5 million viewers per game. Bowl attendance averaged 41,093 a game, drawing 1,602,618 people, which actually is an increase of 507 fans from last year. 

Maybe much of the “problem” with regular season attendance is nothing more than a match-up problem. Eliminate FBS-FCS games and you'll raise attendance figures.

So I've got no faith in any dimwitted attempt to heighten my enjoyment. It's already as heightened as I'd like. And please, spare me the weather nonsense. Throughout the country, the weather is pretty enjoyable the entire regular season, not just on the West Coast. The stifling summer heat abates, handing its reign over to the crisp, invigorating autumn air. Why any college football fan wouldn't want to breathe it all in is puzzling.

But the West Coast harbors a different animal. The idea, Pac-12 football fan, is to engage in whatever outdoor activity your hyper-active heart desires for as long as it desires it during the spring and summer. Then, when it gets colder, warm yourself in camaraderie with other fans in an enclosed environment rooting the local football team on to victory. From start to finish.

USC fans love their tailgate parties. |

It's a very simple formula to follow, and it only costs four or five hours of your time six Saturdays a year. You can even arrive early and have a parking lot party before the game. People actually do that. They call it “tailgating.”

My wife and I gave up our season seats to Virginia Cavalier games after five seasons. The reason had nothing to do with an absence of Himalayan sea salt at the condiment station, difficult commutes, the half-mile walk from our car to Scott Stadium and back, or the lack of a strong Wi-Fi signal hindering my Constitutional right to take as many selfies of my own unique fan experience as possible. 

It had to do with the fans. 

Whether fighting, or drunk as a skunk, or screaming incoherently at anything—sometimes participating in all three acts at once—the actual fan experience kept us away. Every game was a battle to relax comfortably in our seats while others in the nosebleed sections sneaked down to our row and made themselves at home, effectively shoving us from our row, forcing a move to an open area to sit, sometimes separately for the rest of the game. 

These are the problems that need to be addressed, long before fulfilling any ambition to see how technology can save us.

If and when that happens, we might discover there was really no attendance problem at all.

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